Hone your tone of voice. A linguistic perspective on how to talk to customers

11 min read

As a linguist, I easily obsess over what people are saying. Are they being ironic? Was that a speech error? What’s the real meaning behind the words they’re using?

I’m constantly analysing speech, not only because I find it fascinating but also because I’m context-blind. This basically means I struggle to understand context. So, I often need to think and analyse speech to understand what someone just told me.

But even though that’s what hooked me to linguistics, since then, I have analysed speech in all sorts of fields. From monitoring opinions on Twitter during the 2012 French Presidential Elections to working on natural language generation to build the artificial intelligence (or how I like to call it, machine intelligence) for the Google Assistant, I have come a long way in understanding language.

Ever since I joined Unbabel, I started wondering about language in customer support. The way you write to your customers, the language you use, how you solve their problems, your tone of voice, can really influence customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.

In my role as the Director of Quality at Unbabel, leading a team of 7 specialists of language, tirelessly working on controlling, improving and providing the perfect quality for our customers’ content, we have analysed crazy amounts of written customer support messages, which is why I decided to share some advice.

So, in this article, you’ll find some useful tips on how to define the right tone of voice, according to the channels you’re using, what it means to be polite, and how to keep your customers happy.

What is tone of voice?

Many of us adapt the language we’re using, even if just slightly, depending on who we’re talking to. But what if you adapted your language style to every social context? That is tone of voice. It’s not what you say but rather the way you say it.

It can easily be defined following certain linguistic rules and tricks. Different contexts and people call for different uses of language registers. In customer support, you should keep these three things in mind:

  1. The person you’re talking to
    Understand the voice of the customer, know who you’re talking to, use his or her name, be personal. Make sure that your customers understand you’re a person they can trust.
  2. The channel you’re using
    Adapt the message according to the channel: email, live chat, FAQs, Facebook Messenger, etc. If you’re replying to a customer through live chat, you can be more spontaneous and use a more informal tone, for example, unless your customer addresses you in a formal way, then you should follow his tone.
  3. The topic of the conversation
    Put yourself in their shoes and understand the problem you need to solve. For instance, if you’re addressing a complex customer support issue regarding the use of your software by email, you have to show empathy, and make sure you reformulate the question to show that you have carefully read the message, while using a professional, polite and warm tone.

Now, that you know what I mean by tone of voice, let’s look at specific examples.

How should you talk to your customers?

Most of the articles I read on this topic say that you need to be polite when talking to customers. That’s kind of obvious, right? But the problem, though, is understanding what politeness really means, and how you can turn that to your advantage.

How do you show empathy in a written message? How do you reply to an incredibly angry customer? Let’s dive a bit deeper and look at some examples of tone of voice in customer service.

What does it mean to be polite?

Happy customer face

First of all, people have different perceptions of politeness. Second, there are different strategies on how to be polite.

A major framework that combines these “politeness strategies” has been developed by two linguists: Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson. They distinguish between negative politeness strategies, which are performed to avoid offense through deference, and positive politeness strategies, which are performed to avoid offense by emphasising friendliness. In other words, you can be polite in two different ways, you can either avoid to say things that can be offensive, but this may lead to a cold and formal discussion, or you can practice positive politeness by being proactive, active in the conversation and creating a warm relationship with your customer.

How to adjust the politeness level?

You should always deal with customers in a sincere and positive way. However, there are a few things you need to think of first and that is understanding your customer’s expectations, preferences, and aversions.

With that in mind, you need to adjust the politeness level and reply to your customers in a way that shows that you care about them.

Here are a few tricks you can pull when you’re using the English language.

Softening words (hedges)

You can use softening words or hedges to communicate, like in the following examples:

softermore direct
This bug is kind of unusual. Could you give me more details?This bug is unusual. Give me more detail, please.
Could you just try to connect your device once again, please?Try to connect one more time. (The imperative is very direct when used in requests.)
Your website could possibly be improved. [giving someone criticism on their website performance]
You may need to spend more time working a little bit on the layout.
You must improve your website. You need to spend more time working on the layouts.

Vague language

You can also use vague language to make times and quantities sound a bit less direct. This way you give more of an approximation and it’s particularly useful if you need to delay an answer or to put a request on hold.

Being very factual can sometimes sound too direct or give the wrong expectations, and so you can add vague expressions like: about, kind of sort of, -ish (suffix), stuff, things.

However, depending on your brand’s persona, words such as stuff and whatever, whoever, whenever, whichever may sometimes sound too vague and impolite.

Modal expressions

We can use certain modal verbs, specially the past forms of the modal verbs can, may, shall and will (could, might, should and would), to be more polite or less direct. We can also use other modal expressions (certainly, be likely to, supposed to be). We often do this when we ask for something or ask someone to do something:

  • Might I ask if you have already tried to see this using a different browser? (rather formal and more polite/less direct than May I ask …?)
  • Would you mind sending me an email as soon as you receive the confirmation, please?
  • Could you take a look at this list of required information?
  • Well, I’ll certainly take a look at this and let you know once it’s fixed.
  • Well, the anti-virus is supposed to be up to date. But let me sort that out for you.
  • You are likely to feel a little overwhelmed with all this information I just sent you. So just let me know if you have any questions. I would be more than happy to help. (less direct than You will feel overwhelmed by all this information.)

Punctuate with positive adjectives and adverbs

Positive customer service phrases are built with positive words. If you use vocabulary that’s assuring, as well as energetic, you will find that your positive attitude can be contagious. Adding these positive, affirmative words to your customer service vocabulary will definitely improve your communication: Definitely, Surely, Absolutely, Gladly, Certainly, Fantastic, Amazing, Awesome, Great, Good, Terrific, Assure, Understand

Changing tenses and verb forms

Sometimes we use a past verb form when referring to the present, in order to be more polite or less direct. We often do this with verbs such as hope, think, want and wonder. The verb may be in the past simple, or, for extra politeness, in the past continuous:

  • I was hoping you would already have it. (less direct than I hope you have it.)
  • I thought you might want to know that we’re actively investigating to solve your issue.
  • I wanted to ask you a question.
  • I am having some problems retrieving your information and I was just wondering if you could guide me through the steps you followed to log in. (less direct and forceful than I have a problem retrieving your informations and I wonder if you could tell me the steps you followed to log in.)

In speaking or chatting, we often use if followed by will, would, can or could to introduce a request. This is particularly helpful in customer support calls or live chat. It just makes the request sound softer and less direct:

  • If we could move on to the next point of the discussion. (more polite than Can we move on …)
  • If I could just say one more thing … (more polite than Listen to me, I want to say something.)

We also use other expressions with if to show politeness: if you don’t mind, if it’s ok with you, if I may say so, if it will help:

  • If you don’t mind, could you please send me the details of your booking?
  • I’ll send you the confirmation email tomorrow if that’s OK with you.

Using names

You can make cause a much better impression by using a person’s name. It’s just like Dale Carnegie said in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”: “remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”.

  • When was the last time you tried to buy this, John
  • I’m not entirely sure we can do that, Liam

Rephrase

When you rephrase a customer’s comment or complaint, you are doing two important things:

  • You make them feel heard and understood
  • You clarify what was said so that you don’t make any mistakes

This is particularly important because some customers aren’t used to typing out their complaints via chat, or even email, so their communication may be rushed or confusing. However, you shouldn’t just repeat exactly what your customer said word for word. That’s just annoying and frustrating. Instead, summarise what they told you efficiently.

What should you avoid?

Avoid using direct forms because you may sound impolite and cause the wrong impression.

The imperative form

Confused customer face

In most contexts, the imperative is very direct and not very caring:

  • Give me your bank detail.
  • Could you send me your bank details, please?

However, it is acceptable to use an imperative in warnings, offers, written requests and when giving directions or instructions:

  • Mind your step!
  • Have another question!
  • Click on the left side of the screen you get past the cinema. Then fill your name in the login field
  • To change your password, go to this URL.

Using very familiar terms of address inappropriately

When people know each other very well, for example, couples or very close friends, parents and their children, they may address each other using terms such as love, honey, darling, pet. In certain dialects you may also hear people use these terms in shops and cafés, for example. It is impolite to use these terms in formal contexts, and it should be avoided when communicating with your customer.

Avoid intensely negative words

Awful, Horrible, Terrible, Bad, No*, Never, Dumb, Rude

*Don’t get me wrong. It’s okay to say no, as long as you put your company’s interest first. Always remember why you’re saying no, and stick to it. Being confident about it will help you get a positive “no” across.

In the end, what truly matters is for you to solve your customers’ problems and meet their expectations. These tips should get you started on improving the way you talk to your customers, and how you address their issues.

However, if you’re doing customer support on a global scale you should be aware that politeness is perceived differently around the world. Did you know, for example, that Japanese has a huge variety of personal pronouns with different degrees of politeness? Or that in Swedish people use an informal register even in a business context?

That’s the thing with language. It’s much more complex than you’d normally expect. It’s not just about words, rules and restrictions. But more about us as human beings and our own set of cultures and customs.

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